What is Buddha’s Delight?
Buddha’s Delight, also known as Luo Han Zhai in Mandarin and Lo Han Jai in Cantonese, is a dish that is commonly eaten on the first day of the Chinese New Year.
After the meat laden meal of the Reunion dinner the night before, it is thought that a dish heavy on vegetables would go a long way to purify oneself, physically and spiritually.
This is also a very popular dish in Chinese restaurants. Growing up in Singapore and not consuming pork, Buddha’s Delight was the dish I always looked forward to at any Chinese weddings and festivities, because I knew it was something I could eat! Besides the yummy seafood!
Lo Han Jai, what’s in a name?
Jai is in fact, a word that refers to any and all vegetarian food consumed by Buddhist monks. Quite often, Lo Han Jai is shortened to just Jai; everyone knows which dish it refers to!
Lohan is the Chinese name for the 18 disciples of Gautama Buddha, Arhat being the term in Sanskrit. These disciples are said to have been just below the Buddha on the totem pole. To be an arhat, one must have rid oneself of all earthly desires and temptations, because only then can one achieve Nirvana.
With the arhats in mind, Buddha’s Delight was traditionally made of 18 ingredients to represent the 18 disciples of the Buddha. However, the modern day Lo Han Jai takes on endless manifestations, depending on the region, the family, the cook and naturally, the season.
Buddha’s Delight Ingredients
The possibilities seem endless! There are many, many permutations to the combination of ingredients that can be used to make lo han jai.
There are some ingredients though, that are a must have. I’ve said this before, if you are serious about exercising your culinary muscles, than you need to make an effort to source out some “exotic” ingredients. In this day of online shopping, for many of us, that has become a much easier exercise.
So let’s take a look at some of the ingredients. I’ve added an asterisk to the ingredients that I cannot do without and I feel that you should try and get your hands on. I’ve also listed them in terms of “importance”. We’ll take a closer look at some ingredients later.
- garlic* – although the traditional Buddhist monks wouldn’t have been fond of foods flavoured strongly with it (likewise ginger and onions)
- spring onions (scallions)/onions*
- shiitake* – the dried ones are the preferred option here for the concentrated flavour and aroma. We also use the soaking liquid as part of the stock to stew the vegetables. Use fresh, if you can’t get dried.
- dried lily buds* – as its name suggests, these are lilies. They have a fruity and slightly sour aroma and flavour to them. In fact, the smell reminds me of the salted plum snack I used to love as a kid in Singapore.
- mung bean noodles* (cellophane noodles), these add a lovely texture to your Buddha’s Delight
- fried tofu puffs*
- red fermented bean curd* (or white)
- some sort of green vegetables* – napa cabbage, white cabbage, pak choy, snow peas
- dried wood ear mushrooms
- fatt choy (black moss)
- bamboo shoots
- water chestnuts
- red dates (jujubes)
- lotus root and seed
- dried tofu skin
- baby corn
A closer look at some ingredients
Also known as golden needles, dried lily flowers, as mentioned above, have a fruity and slightly tart flavour. They need to be rehydrated before being used, as we’ll be doing here.
The end of the flowers are a little bit chewy, so we snip them off after soaking.
Cellophane noodles are translucent when cooked, hence the name. Made from mung beans, potatoes or sweet potatoes, they are more commonly used as an added ingredient to soups, stirfries and to fill spring rolls. And that’s how we’re using them here.
In Korea, they are cooked like regular rice vermicelli, and are made of sweet potato starch.
They are called by various names all over East and South East Asia; I grew up calling them soohoon or tang hoon.
They are tofu cubes that are drained of as much liquid as possible, then fried, whereupon they puff up. They soak up flavours beautifully.
Tofu puffs can be made at home, but it’s so much easier to just buy them!
Fermented bean curd is simply tofu that’s been preserved and is used as both a condiment as well as a cooking ingredient in East Asia and some parts of South East Asia.
If you can’t get it, a small amount of miso paste will add depth to your Buddha’s Delight, in place of the fermented bean curd.
Wood ear fungus is definitely an Oriental ingredient. Also needs to be soaked before use, it adds a delightful chewy, slippery texture to whatever dish it’s used in.
Black moss, or fatt choy, is a type of funghi. Not the most appetising looking thing in its dried form, it resembles human hair, hence its name in Chinese which means hair vegetable.
To me, it rather looks like a block of pan scourer!
Once soaked, it looks like seaweed, as you can see.
Fatt Choy is an extremely popular Chinese New Year ingredient because the name sounds like “making it rich” in Chinese. You can read more about wealth and other symbolism on the Chinese New Year page.
Buddha’s Delight Recipe
I know it looks like a fairly long list of ingredients, doesn’t it? We’re not using all of the ingredients listed above! As is always good practice, get all the ingredients ready (see recipe below), which will only take about 15 minutes, before you start soaking and cooking. Life will be less complicated, trust me.
The recipe card below has check boxes, tick the ingredients off as you get them.
This is what we are going to be doing:
- Soak all the dried ingredients in very hot water for 30 minutes (both mushrooms, lily buds and black moss), except the cellophane noodles, which only need 2 minutes in very hot water.
- Drain the noodles and toss in sesame oil (to stop from sticking, as well as to impart flavour).
- Chop and slice the aromatics (garlic, ginger, spring onions) and the vegetables.
- Drain, snip and slice the soaked ingredients. We save the soaking liquid from the shiitake and lily buds.
- Get cooking, which is a fairly short process, about 15 minutes.
Are you ready? Let’s get our aprons on, then! Any questions, anything doesn’t look clear, just shoot me a line: below or via email.
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Buddha’s Delight (Lo Han Jai, Vegan Chinese Braised Vegetables)
- a wok, a saute pan or a large, deep frying pan
- 60 g shiitake mushrooms (about 10-12)
- 10 g dried lily flowers (about a handful)
- 10 g wood ear fungus (about a handful)
- 3 g black moss (fatt choy)
- 50 g cellophane noodles (1 bundle)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 5 cm ginger
- 3 spring onions (scallions)
- ½ a small napa cabbage
- 2 bunches pak choi
- 1 medium carrot
The Rest of the Ingredients
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 Tbsp red fermented bean curd (or 2 for a stronger flavour)
- 100 g fried tofu puffs
- 1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
Soak the Dried Ingredients (for 30 minutes)
- Boil some water, and place all the dried ingredients in separate bowls. Pour the boiling water over each ingredient and leave all to soak for 30 minutes, apart from the cellophane noodles.
- Drain the cellophane noodles after just 1 minute, rinse in cold tap water, then toss with the 1 Tbsp of sesame oil. Set aside. This is the time to chop up all your aromatics and vegetables.
- At the end of 30 minutes, drain all the soaked ingredients, reserving the soaking liquid from the shiitake and lily flowers.
- Snip off the slightly harder ends of the lily flowers and discard.
- Slice the shiitake.
- With a pair of scissors, cut the wood ear fungus if you like. I prefer to leave them whole, even the larger ones.
Chop up the Aromatics and Vegetables (during soaking time)
- Slice the garlic, julienne the ginger and chop up the spring onions into 2.5cm (1") lengths.
- Slice the cabbage widthwise, about 2.5cm (1") wide.
- Cut off the ends of the pak choi, rinse, and leave them whole.
- Slice the carrot.
Prepare the Braising Liquid
- Mix all the ingredients together, including 125ml (½ cup) of the soaking liquid from the shiitake and lily flowers.
Time to Cook Buddha's Delight!
- Heat the oil in a large wok on medium-high heat.
- Fry the garlic, ginger and spring onions for 30 seconds.
- Add the carrots, lily flowers, shiitake, wood ear fungus, black moss and fermented bean curd.
- Stir to mix, then pour in the braising liquid. In the video (coming very soon), you see me adding the soy sauces and wine mix, followed by the 2 soaking liquid.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add pak choi and cabbage and cook for 2-3 minutes, depending on how soft you like your pak choi and cabbage.
- Add the tofu puffs and heat through for 1 minute.
- Then finally throw in the cellophane noodles, separating the strands slightly. Stir to heat through for 1 minute. Check seasoning and add more salt, if you think it needs it. Serve up immediately. The cellophane noodles will gradually absorb the liquid in the dish.